Jamaica Kincaid: Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya

For those who know Jamaica Kincaid from the opening salvo of A Small Place – a withering put-down of the tourists who descend on her island, blithely oblivious of what it is like to live there – this may come as a big surprise.

Among Flowers is an account of a trek she made in Nepal, for the purpose of collecting seeds she could plant in her garden in Vermont. She and her three companions are guided by sherpas and supported by a team of porters (whose names she can never remember) who do their best to meet their demand for creature comforts and keep them safe from the attentions of ‘Maoists’ (caricatured as menacing or infantile throughout) who threaten to spoil their vacation.

It is not easy to believe that they were written by the same person. Perhaps she has gotten more conservative as she has gotten older. It’s not unheard of. Or perhaps we would find it more reassuring to believe that if the first was sincere, the second must be ironic.

I’m not convinced.

In one village she refers to the way she becomes the object of curious attention. ‘One woman did make me understand that she thought I was wearing a mask, that my face was not my real face,’ she writes. Maybe this is Kincaid reminding her readers that authors always ‘wear a mask’, whether it be that of the outraged local or the self-absorbed tourist. In each case, it is as if she is adopting a deliberately exaggerated persona and pushing it as far as it can go.

The first-person protagonist of this story is not unaware of the disparities of power and wealth that separate elite travellers from the people they meet (and rely on). Indeed, her disarming tendency to admit how much she moaned about the facilities or felt let down by the porters brings them into sharper relief than an account by a more ‘sensitive’ traveller who might have made more effort to appear to ‘fit in’.

But even when she consciously reflects on these disparities – for example when she contrasts her own perspective with that of the Nepalese (what for her is treasure may be weeds to them, what is ornament, food, and what is exciting and new, dull and quotidian) – it is the way that these reflections unconsciously rob them of the possibility of finer feeling that is telling rather than the prosaic truth they express.

Above all, that these reflections never prompt searching questions of a moral or political nature – while a Communist rebellion gathers pace around her – may be more eloquent in its silence than an approach that offers simple solutions.

For this reason, I think the ‘tourist’ identity Kincaid assumes in the Himalayas exposes contradictions and paradoxes much more effectively than the ‘local’ identity she assumes in Antigua. Whether this is a deliberate strategy is another question, and possibly an irrelevant one.

History

One of the final touches to the flat before flinging it open to the unsuspecting property-vultures was to replace the floor covering in the kitchen closet. This is what was underneath the old linoleum.

These are pages from a newspaper from September 1915, not long after this tenement was built. I don’t suppose whoever put them there intended to let them fester until they resembled a Kurt Schwitters collage, and if they did they left them too long to be able to claim to have invented Dada a year before Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara got together at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich.

Given the date I was expecting details of a military campaign but instead the news is dominated by the recall of Konstantin Dumba, the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the United States, following accusations of espionage.

I was not familiar with this episode of the First World War and had to look it up. I couldn’t find any link between Dumba and Glasgow, but when I told someone the story at work, I was surprised to learn that before the war the Austro-Hungarian empire was represented here by the famous shipping magnate and art collector William Burrell who held the post of consul until 1906, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.

It seems unlikely the two ever met (Dumba was serving as Minister to Serbia at the time) and Burrell’s acquaintance with Central Europe may not have been extensive, if the recollections of an encounter in 1932 are to be believed. This was on the occasion of the first visit to Glasgow by Béla Bartók who was a guest of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm (himself sometimes compared to Bartók as a modernist who drew extensively on the idioms of his country’s folk and traditional music).

Chisholm’s wife, Diana, recalled:

When we knew Bartók was coming to Glasgow to stay with us, the first thing, which worried us, was – language difficulty. None of us, of course, could speak one word of Hungarian. Would our famous guest be any better with English? I immediately bought an ‘English-cum-Hungarian’ dictionary, (by the time I left Scotland I had entertained so many continental composers, musicians, and singers, that I had a very comprehensive collection of ‘English-cums’). I pictured myself standing on the station platform anxiously scanning the face of every male, who, in my opinion, looked ‘foreign’, and gesticulating wildly with the dictionary. However, I was rescued (or thought I was) from this predicament by the Hungarian Consul in Glasgow, Sir William Burrell, who telephoned me the day before Bartók’s arrival to say that he also would like to come to the station to receive this distinguished visitor from Hungary.

‘Luck’, I thought, ‘this lets me out’. So you can imagine my disappointment, when, on meeting Sir William a few minutes before the train was due to arrive (8.35 p.m. on February 28 1932), he said he hoped that either my husband or I could speak Hungarian because he could not.

‘Well’, I said laughingly, ‘you’re the official representative so you can get on with it.’ But we need not have worried. When the Flying Scotsman arrived and the passengers alighted from the train it was quite simple to recognise him. There was only one Béla Bartók! A small white-haired man, wearing a black Homburg hat, thick black coat with a heavy Astrakhan collar and armed with a music case in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Who I wondered had forewarned him about Glasgow’ s weather?

Sir William went forward at once to greet him, and I swear I saw a look of relief flit across the consul’s face when Bartók said in a softly spoken, broken English accent, ‘Bartók is my name’. After that all went smoothly. Later in the day, my husband and I admitted to each other that we had both felt ashamed that not one of the party who came to receive him could reply to him in his language, least of all the Consul.1

Whether Sir William was still the Consul at that time I have been unable to confirm. I don’t know a word of Hungarian either, although I did find something else when I was clearing out the flat. I had not opened my copy of Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins in more than thirty years.

In a fit of insanity I disturbed my violin out of hibernation. The downstairs neighbours must have been grateful the episode was very brief.

Notes

  1. Erik Chisholm, ‘Béla Bartók: The Shy Genius’, available for download from the Erik Chisholm website.

Jamaica Kincaid: My Garden (Book):

A quotation from Kirkus Review on the back cover of my copy calls this book ‘quirky’. This is true, on different levels.

Perhaps the most distinctive formal feature is the deliberately excessive use of parentheses, as if the author has set herself the task of illustrating all the different purposes they can serve (clarifying an ambiguous pronoun, glossing an unusual word or phrase, explanation, qualification, specification of relationship, narrative digression, and so on), extending to the very title. It lends these essays an informal, conversational character – often marked by sudden changes of direction or swings of mood.

But the subject matter is highly unusual too. All the essays draw on Kincaid’s experiences as an amateur gardener but it is no more a book about gardening than Beyond a Boundary is about cricket. ‘What do they know of gardening who only gardening know?’ could easily be its epigraph. If it is eloquent on the ways in which the gardener can take delight in the ‘vexations and agitations’ of her craft, and on the impulses that attract her to some plants and repel her from others, My Garden (book) offers various historical and cross-cultural perspectives that make for uncomfortable and provocative reading.

She dwells – some might say perversely – on the quotidian details of buying and selling, underlining the broader economic networks in which she operates (including her own privilege as the owner of a large house in Vermont who can afford domestic help). Having grown up in the Caribbean she is keenly aware of how precious the aesthetic pleasures of the domestic garden are when set alongside the mercenary priorities of plantation agriculture on the one hand and the imperialist ‘botany thieves’ (and the Latin nomenclature they imposed) on the other.

There are few moments of tranquility here. Her reflections on Spring are punctuated by the killing (or fantasies of killing) rabbits, snakes, bugs and slugs, but the contradictions are sharpest in the longest essay in the book, ‘Plant Hunting in China’. As Kincaid describes the organized tour – her attention largely absorbed by the behaviour of her fellow-travellers, the unvarying diet of ‘pork, pork, pork, pork’, and the unsanitary conditions and practices she observes (and must herself occasionally endure) – she comes close to occupying the position of the tourist she famously despises in A Small Place. It certainly seems to confirm that she has now (as she puts it in another essay) ‘joined the conquering classes.’ And here perhaps any comparison with C L R James breaks down. But the book leaves us with much to reflect on.

Remembering the Freedom Riders

In 1961 Mother’s Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.

With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.

As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.

Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.

When I wrote a piece recently on two writers – John Lewis and Gary Younge – who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular ‘footsteps’ genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:

Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1

The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama’s official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.

But what I didn’t immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.

The use of the word ‘youth’, though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people – five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) – it’s a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.

The ‘klansmen’ who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the ‘police’ who stood by and watched, and yet – perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion – the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE – surely opaque to many who read the notice – serving perfectly in this respect).

Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren’t for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them ‘standing their ground’ – a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.

Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

Who is speaking in this book? There are several voices here and while their utterances may readily be described as heartfelt or brutally honest, they also feel slightly contrived. It is as if A Small Place is an exercise in invective rather than an expression of it.

I was prompted to re-read A Small Place after being introduced to Listen, Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba. These letters from defiant young revolutionaries addressed to North American readers were actually written by a US sociologist. C Wright Mills begins and ends the book with reflections of his own, but the narrator in the main body of the text is a composite persona he created on the basis of extensive interviews during his visit to the island in 1960.

Kincaid grew up in Antigua so she is not an outsider like Mills. But she left the island at an early age and by the time she came to write A Small Place she had lived in the United States for nearly thirty years, and so to begin her essay as a native (who gives no indication of ever having been abroad) addressing the reader as a hypothetical tourist arriving in her country is to adopt an identity almost as fictional as Mills’.

And the point of view is equally heterogeneous. If the first part offers a sarcastic assault on the ignorance of the tourist (the most striking, most enjoyable part of the book, the one that most readers remember), the second turns on the white settler elite of colonial Antigua (flavoured with childhood reminiscences), and the target of the third is the corrupt alliance of big business and government that replaced it following independence. Gradually the voice shifts from that of a local who can do nothing but pour scorn on the wealthy visitor to that of an educated outsider who despairs that ordinary Antiguans seem to acquiesce in this new state of affairs, and are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves. By the end the narrator has shed all traces of solidarity with her fellow-islanders, referring to them in the third person: ‘Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.’

There is a hint of an alternative future for the Caribbean, one that builds on the dream of democracy represented by the founding of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union in 1939 and Maurice Bishop’s revolution in Grenada. But characteristically it is Bishop’s fate – ‘at the hands of the Americans’ – that closes off these reflections rather than the uprising against the Duvalier dictatorship two years before the book was published (at the end of the essay Baby Doc still seems to be in power). And so A Small Place ends, calling for Antiguans to develop ‘a different relationship with the world, a more demanding relationship, a relationship in which they are not victims’, but giving little sign that this is likely to happen.

The passion of the book is superficial, for this cynicism empties its passion of any force. ‘And so look at this prolonged visit to the bile duct that I am making, look at how bitter, how dyspeptic just to sit and think about these things makes me,’ she writes. Is there not something unreliable about a narrator who is so archly self-conscious about her own moves? Kincaid declines and conjugates rage in a way that leaves me rather cold.

C Wright Mills: Listen Yankee: The Revolution in Cuba

Reporting on his 1960 visit to Cuba, C Wright Mills did not write a conventional travelogue or journalistic account. He chose to have his book narrated by a composite Cuban revolutionary, and it consists of a series of letters addressed to his North American readers. ‘Most of the words are mine,’ Mills writes in his introduction, ‘– although not all of them; the arguments, the tone, the interpretations, the tang and feel – they are in the main directly Cuban. I have merely organized them – in the most direct and immediate fashion of which I am capable.’

The result is a powerful defence of the revolution, which calls upon its readers in the US to challenge the ‘Yankee imperialism’ that is being pursued in their name and to support this brave experiment that seeks to pursue a middle way between Capitalism (which ‘sacrifices man’) and Communism (which ‘sacrifices the rights of man’) .

The book caused quite a stir at the time and sold close to half a million copies. But it is hardly known today. Listen, Yankee is out of print and has not attracted anything like the critical attention paid to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, an equally passionate challenge from the Caribbean that accusingly fingers a similar audience, and with which it might be usefully compared.

Elizabeth Burns: Held

The vocabulary used in this collection is perhaps best characterised by what it excludes. There is very little non-standard or ‘new’ English here, very little dialect, vernacular, slang, other languages. The use of proper names is tightly controlled – a few places and people here and there; certainly almost no trace of current affairs, brands, popular culture. It goes without saying that no one talks like this – no one could get far in everyday life with such a restricted stock of words – but it is unusual to find even poetry like this today.

This is one reason why Burns’ poems seem so fragile and precious. It seems almost unbelieveable that they can hold off the teeming heteroglossia that surrounds them. It is certainly noticeable when a slightly low word like ‘shove’ appears (‘An eighteenth-century experiment’) or a slightly specialized one like ‘felucca’ (‘A homecoming’), while the rare specificity of ‘Silloth’, ‘Carstairs’, ‘Cold War’, and ‘Nazis’ draw you into geography and history. And for me these moments give an extra pleasure, not least because they gently remind you that the collection’s persistent themes (bereavement, creativity) always emerge from the evocation of a particular place and time even if the reader couldn’t pin them them on a map or a calendar.

But the most characteristic feature of Held – its signature, even – is its astounding ability to span centuries and continents in a few lines, as the observation of something so humble as a stone coffin, an excavated trench , a river approaching the sea, gives way to a glimpse of its distant past or possible future.

In ‘Transport’, for example, an image of barges laden with gunpowder pulled by horses takes us back to the crofters gathering the kelp ash used in its production and forwards to the sea voyage and explosions on the other side of the ocean. ‘History’ combines in one view – and a sublimely condensed apprehension of human and geological time-scales – the ruins of an abbey and a nuclear power station, ‘whose indestructible / waste is in the seabed where layers of sediment / became the quarried sandstone, heaved over salt marsh // to be turned into an abbey.’

The front cover of the book features a white porcelain moon jar in the British Museum (and the subject of one of the poems), but the material objects in these poems are not trapped in a display case; they are invested with labour, love, power and suffering. As the title suggests, it’s what’s inside them, the secret biographies they harbour, that counts.

Sometimes, it is true, the poems themselves seem a little too laboured and unconvincing. The metaphor of portrait and sitter in ‘Diptych’ feels overextended so that its point becomes unclear. The historical sweep of ‘Holy Water’ from mediaeval monks to nuclear subs packs in more descriptive and explanatory clauses than it needs, I think. And the collection closes with ‘This life’ – whose title I imagine unwittingly duplicates that of the cult TV series: it is the only time we find ourselves in an urban environment, and I wonder if it isn’t just its protagonist (a characteristic ‘you’) but the writer herself who feels uncomfortable there, as she slips into a series of glib, short, generalizing nouns before resting more sure-footedly on the sensuous particular: ‘… but this life with its city streets, // its fizz and mix and mess, its rush of sweet-pea scent, / the lightness of their petals, their brief and lovely bloom.’

Pop Videos of the Future

What if field recordings became popular?  You know, like pop songs?

In a piece on a field recording posted in tribute to Ahmed Basiony, killed in the Cairo uprisings in January this year, Marc Weidenbaum asks a similar question.  The recording, made by John Kannenberg, is one of a series of museum recordings, all lasting exactly 4 minutes 33 seconds – a duration in tribute, of course, to John Cage.

Weidenbaum continues:

It’s no doubt something of a pipe dream among those of us who enjoy field recordings, but should the act of recording the sound of a place ever become nearly as popular and common as is taking photographs of places, it’s imaginable that 4’33” would become a if not the standard length of such an audio document, the same way that there are standardized dimensions for photos.

This may be true. And indeed I have made some 4’33” recordings of libraries, other places of relative silence, that might appeal to our inner Cage.

But if 4’33” is one standard (equivalent perhaps to an album), then one minute is another (the seven-inch single of the field recording world, we might say).  Think of the Quiet American’s One-Minute Vacations or Sound and Music’s Minute of Listening project (to which I have offered some contributions). Sixty seconds is also the (approximate) length of the sonic postcards that are emerging from the City Rings venture.

Whatever. But if these became hits, one thing they would need is a video.  What would a field recording pop video look like?

Well one thing they wouldn’t look like are those videos on YouTube that document people making field recordings (usually to create sound effects) or offer tutorials in using field recording equpment.

More promising is a Vimeo group that goes by the name of, um, Field Recording.  John Kannenberg himself has a A Sound Map of the Egyptian Museum here, which displays a floor plan and indicates where in the building the different recordings were made as they play.  South Bank Skate consist of a sequence of still images taken of a skate park, while the soundtrack appears to be a continuous recording of people skateboarding there.

There are some films of musical performances which, while they make full use of the acoustic space (and one, Notturno, recorded in a working steel foundry, is actually dominated by the ambient sound) still offend the purist in me, who doesn’t want to call these field recordings.

But probably the most common approach found here is to present long takes from a static camera, positioned close to where the recordings were made.  Among my favourites is this clip of Zurich airport at night by Made for Full Screen:

I like this sequence too, animate structures #4 by John  Grzinich, exploring the aeolian effects of strong winds on the landscape and the built environment in the hills just north of San Francisco:

Also interesting is Transplant – 06/07/2010 by Keir Docherty, a close-up of foliage, with the movement of motor traffic on a busy road beyond, which dominates the soundtrack, part of a ‘series of short videos which capture simple moments of everyday life from a very particular perspective.’  The point being to demonstrate that while trees and plants are often introduced to conceal roads from the eye, they are much more effective at masking the visual rather than the aural, even though they do dampen the sound.

These are all fairly close to what I imagine a field recording pop video would look like. The long takes, the static camera, the relative absence of movement within the frame, all help to draw attention to the soundtrack, and yet allow a certain tension between sound and image, given that there will always be a mismatch between what you hear and what you can see (like noises originating off-screen, but also events on-screen that, perhaps unpredictably, cannot be heard). And it is a tension that doesn’t tend to exist with photographs which do not carry the same (if any) sonic expectations.

The makers of such films have sometimes found it useful to work to a set of rules. Made for Full Screen drew up guidelines for a Vimeo group called The Pictures Don’t Move:

1. No camera movement (zoom, pan, …)
2. No editing (cut, time manipulation, …)
3. No performance (acting, dancing, …)
4. Original sound (no music, …)
5. At least 30sec long!

Two years later with over 400 videos, the principles have clearly struck a chord. Despite frequent flagrant (and sometimes spammy) disregard for these rules, there are some great films here.  But after watching a few, my growing feeling was that they were visually too busy.  Or at least that their creators were more interested in what you see rather than what you hear.  Perhaps at some level they were trying too hard not to be boring.

That’s never been a problem for me. Long fascinated by constrained writing, I have been experimenting with a set of rules of my own. Unaware of The Pictures Don’t Move until a few weeks ago, mine are similar, but in effect add more conditions, namely (1) the films must be exactly one minute long, and (2) the source of most of the sounds must be off-camera (to insist on all would be one step too far, I think).

  1. One minute because, as I suggested, it is becoming one of the standard formats for field recordings, but also because producing a series of works of this length (which could be joined together to make a longer film made up of identically-sized segments) help to sharpen your awareness of this – often merely rhetorical (‘just give me a minute’) – unit of time that we take for granted. I suppose my gamble is that this rule can help produce something that makes a minute seem much more precious and longer-lasting than we often allow.
  2. I think a key to this stretching of time is to encourage the viewers to listen as intently as they watch, and to point the camera away from the source of the sound is one of the best ways of doing this. And there is no better way of slowing you down than imposing a rule that breaks the ingrained habits of almost everyone who makes and watches videos.

One video in the Field Recordings group that obeys this acousmatic principle is Geijitsu Mura Koen by Brown (also an active member of The Pictures Don’t Move group).  It is grotesquely long – almost two minutes – but repays repeated … I was going to say listening, but what we need is a word that combines listening and viewing (with more of the former than the latter).  Listiewing perhaps.

My own efforts have been focused on a project that is bound by even more limitations: Scottish Minutes. The plan is to produce sixty one-minute videos in accordance with these rules, but with the additional objective of covering a wide variety of locations in Scotland (rural, urban, maritime, etc) at different times of year and times of day. In the last eighteen months I’ve made five.  It may take some time.

It almost goes without saying that these rules favour those with fairly unsophisticated equipment.  They could be made quite easily using a smartphone. I tend to make things more complicated for myself. Used to making sound recordings, I normally use binaural microphones with a minidisc recorder for the audio, and a cheap point-and-shoot digital camera. Back home I transfer the recording onto computer, choose the segment I want and attach it to the matching segment of film (replacing the original audio taken by the camera).  Of course, since much of the sound is off camera, precise matching of sound and image is not usually required.

Here’s an example of a non-Scottish minute. A Short Film About Flying, made at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.  You will notice that not only are these videos done on the cheap, I don’t even bother to clean the camera lens properly.  How rock’n’roll is that?

Malcolm X as Photographer

One of the surprises for me reading Manning Marable’s recent biography of Malcolm X is the number of references to him as a photographer.

In the summer of 1963, for instance, to a civil rights demonstration in New York, he ‘brought along a 35-millimeter camera and busied himself taking photographs. “If there were no captions for these pictures, you’d think this was Mississippi or Nazi Germany,” he informed one New York Times reporter’ (p253).

This is not the first mention of Malcolm filming demonstrations. It seems he made a habit of it, possibly because the mainstream media could not be relied on to report objectively, but also, perhaps, to help the Nation of Islam identity (or at least provoke) FBI observers and infiltrators.

On holiday in Miami with his wife, children, and Cassius Clay in January 1964, he kept a notebook in which

he drafted several paragraphs about his family’s visit to Clay’s training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, ‘Malcolm X, the Family Man.’ Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken (p280).

During his second trip to Africa and the Middle East, he toured Algiers ‘by taxi, leaning out of the car window to take photographs’, apparently catching the attention of the police who detained him on departure at the airport, believing the photos to be a security risk (p319).

An evening program at the Audubon Ballroom organized by the Organization for Afro-American Unity in January 1965 ‘featured color films taken by Malcolm during his travels’ (p404).

This suggests his interest in photography extended to cinematography too, and indeed, several images of Malcolm show him holding an 8mm movie camera, like this one published in Life magazine, taken at London Airport in July 1964.

Here’s another picture of Malcolm holding a camera. And there is actually a similar shot (possibly taken on the same occasion) on the home page of the Malcolm X Project, a collection of resources compiled in association with Marable’s biography.

But most intriguing of all is the claim that de Laurot’s remarkable film Black Liberation (1967) features Malcolm X not only on screen but ‘behind the camera’. You can – if you’re lucky to get a good connection – stream a video here, but it is impossible to guess which bits of footage he may have been responsible for.

Surely there is enough here to merit further investigation. Malcolm was not the first political leader to try to control his photographic image. But a leader who wields a camera in public is certainly unusual and cannot be attributed solely to a concern over how he was represented. After all, most of the film he shot would have been of people and places he encountered, not of himself.

Perhaps it is time to return to the vast on- and off-line Malcolm X archive and ask it questions about photography that it may not have been asked before. How skilled a photographer was he? Do his photographs and movie footage evince a particular sensibility, even the hints of a radical aesthetic practice, or are they indistinguishable from conventional holiday snaps? At any rate, the special interest in photography on the part of someone who was almost exclusively identified with a – very distinctive – verbal (largely oral) delivery might cause us to wonder about the co-existence of these very different rhetorical forms in his repertoire.

There are five boxes of photographs in the Malcolm X Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The collection description record is fairly general, but does indicate that it includes ‘portraits of African-American expatriates and visitors, and views of crowds, possibly photographed by Malcolm X during his visits to various African countries, particularly Nigeria and Ghana (ca. 1964).’

Looks like a good place to start.

Jackie and Bob

It seems incredible that I could have lived more than fifty years and not have heard ‘Oboe’ by Jackie Mittoo.

But, as I was compelled to stop doing the dishes and turn up the volume when this beguiling instrumental came on the radio this evening, it would appear to be indeed the case.

Something about it sounded familiar, though. That five-note motif (first heard at 0’25”) nagged me.  Where had I heard this before? Who had sampled it?

I scrubbed at a pan and put the kettle on. My son could tell from my manner that I was preoccupied.  He asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain. I told him it was nearly bedtime and went through to run his bath, scared that the song would end and I’d miss the announcement that would tell me what it was and the riff would simply evaporate.  For you can’t (yet) sing to Shazam.

And then it came to me. Wasn’t it used in ‘A Touch of Jazz’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince?

Actually, no. While he was splashing and singing the Octonauts theme at full belt in the bathroom, I played the 12″ and realized what I was thinking of was the better known ‘Westchester Lady’ by Bob James:

The motif (first heard at 0’09”) is similar but – played straight after the Jackie Mittoo – is much more distinct. And, of course, more samplable. You can see why it caught the attention of Jazzy Jeff (and several others).

Bob’s tune came out in 1973, Jackie’s three years later. I assume the quotation is deliberate. Roaming online just now I came across one comment that suggested that ‘Oboe’ is a cover of ‘Westchester Lady’, which is pushing it, and only true in the sense that John Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ is a cover of that song from The Sound of Music.

Let’s face it, Bob James is pretty cheesy. This song, with its cringeworthy title, is a lifetime’s supply of Dairylea. That five-note series is the only thing going for it, unless jazz funk arrangements polished to a dazzling shine thrill you per se.

But embedded in the loose ensemble sound you hear on ‘Oboe’, Jackie Mittoo shows that riff has legs. Its meandering, improvisatory quality, together with those never-quite expected splashes and swells of keyboard and cuts in the rhythm, make it far too interesting to listen to in a lift or hotel lobby.

Its nine and a half minutes deserve your full attention.